What Is a Blood Infection?

Meshell Powell

A blood infection, also referred to as sepsis or septicemia, occurs when an infection spreads to the blood from elsewhere in the body. Symptoms vary widely, depending on the origin of the infection, and may include rapid pulse, changes in body temperature, or diarrhea. Treatment depends on the individual symptoms present and usually includes the use of strong antibiotics and any necessary life support measures. A blood infection can become fatal if not promptly diagnosed and treated. Any questions or concerns about a blood infection or the most appropriate treatment options for an individual situation should be discussed with a doctor or other medical professional.

A transfusion may be needed to treat a blood infection.
A transfusion may be needed to treat a blood infection.

Any type of infection can spread to the blood, although bacteria is the leading cause of the development of a blood infection. In the majority of cases, an infection of the blood is caused by a serious illness such as meningitis or appendicitis. It is possible, however, that something as minor as a scraped knee could lead to a blood infection.

Appendicitis is a common cause of blood infection.
Appendicitis is a common cause of blood infection.

Certain members of the population are at a greater risk of developing a blood infection. Those with compromised immune systems, such as those with AIDS or cancer, have an increased risk of even simple infections moving to the bloodstream. Small babies and the elderly are also more susceptible to these infections. Diabetic patients and those who have recently been hospitalized may also have a higher chance than the general population of having a blood infection.

The elderly are especially susceptible for blood infections.
The elderly are especially susceptible for blood infections.

Changes in body temperature may occur in those who have developed an infection of the blood. In some cases, a fever may be present. It is also possible for the body temperature to drop to below normal levels. The pulse and respiration rates may increase, or there may be a decrease in urine output. Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea may occur as a result of widespread inflammation and infection.

Treatment for a blood infection usually requires the use of antibiotics delivered through an IV. Blood transfusions may become necessary, depending on the source of the infection. If severe organ damage has occurred, organ transplantation may become a treatment option. There is not one standard treatment method for this type of infection, as the key is finding the underlying cause of the infection and managing that condition. The supervising physician will discuss all of the available treatment options with the patient so that an individualized treatment plan can be made.

Intravenous antibiotics are often used to help treat blood infections.
Intravenous antibiotics are often used to help treat blood infections.

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Discussion Comments


@Pippinwhite -- That's scary. I'll remember to insist on a white count if either of my parents have to go the ER for anything not obvious. I know the sooner the antibiotics get on board, the better.

A friend of mine died recently after getting a blood infection from a perforated bowel. She had a gastric bypass operation several years ago, and had done well. She started feeling nauseated and went to the doctor. An ultrasound picked up the perforation. Her doctor said the perforation might have been a result of the gastric bypass, although that's a very rare complication.

Anyway, with the ruptured bowel, she got septicemia and it progressed so quickly, the doctors couldn't give her enough antibiotics fast enough. It was very sad.


It's just good practice to run a white blood cell count any time someone comes in with a high fever, or in older people especially, sudden-onset confusion.

My mom had a terrible urinary tract infection, and the *only* symptom she showed was extreme confusion. She wasn't hurting anywhere and wasn't spiking a fever. Even her urine wasn't testing as infected. The only sign she had was an elevated white blood cell count. Finally, her urine culture did grow out bacteria, but it wasn't until she was nearly delirious.

Fortunately, her ER doctor had the sense to order a full blood panel, which clearly showed a very high white count, bordering on septicemia. She was admitted to the hospital and started on IV antibiotics that day.

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